Hearing the passing away of S P Balasubramaniam yesterday left me with a feeling of emptiness. For me, he was not just a musical legend who sang a world record of more than 40000 songs in 15 languages. He was one of the most compassionate humanists that I have met and interacted with. For us at SVYM, he was much more than a donor or a well-wisher who had committed to one program each year in support of our palliative care program. He was a friend, an integral part of our mission and more than anything, he was someone who saw service as spiritual sadhana.
My last meeting with him was in February early this year much before the COVID issue had resulted in lockdowns and death scares. We were sitting together in his hotel room and discussing what constituted good leadership. For most people, we only see the stardom side of their lives – whether it is a cricketer, a cine star or a celebrity singer. It is difficult to imagine that there is a human side to their lives too. SPB was no exception. While many will know him as a singer, as a cine artiste and as a mega musical star, very few will have seen a dimension that people normally do not get to see or hear about.
The next 45 minutes of the conversation gave me insights into the simplicity, the humility and human side of SPB. He was more concerned about the inconvenience that his visit would cause and wanted to know whether the funds raised by his concert would meet our budgetary needs. He matter of factly let me know that people are blinded by his achievements and do not notice his flaws and failures. He said that he has to live with himself and knows how challenging dealing with human ego can be. He saw his life as an opportunity to use music not just to entertain but to also aid in the service of people. For him, singing pro-bono for our palliative care program was his way of giving back to society, which had given him so much. When I tried thanking him for this, he felt visibly upset and mentioned that he had to thank SVYM for giving him the opportunity to be useful to society.
He gave his last public concert in Mysuru on February 9th 2020, as part of our ‘Swaranubuthi’ program in aid of our palliative care activities. That day will now remain a day that will be permanently etched in my memory. Not merely for listening to a musical legend but for something that I find it difficult to describe in mere words. Here was a man who a musical legend and one of India’s greatest singers – and not for a moment did he allow any of the adulation or the recognition get in the way of the larger purpose of participating in a program that wanted to help people live & die in dignity. He was clear on why he was doing what he was doing. The thought of participating as a family member along with several other committed people wanting to help other fellow human beings was so evident in everything he spoke and did.
As I watched and listened to him, I realized that he was not merely a singer who has achieved the status of a ‘legend’. This was an extraordinary human being in the pursuit of a higher purpose – that of actually seeing god in every person that he interacted with. Whether it was the fellow musicians on stage or the young compere – he only had good things to say about each of them. He was constantly looking to bring out the best in everyone present – whether it was himself, or the attending musicians and even the audience. For someone who teaches leadership in different places around the world, this was possibly the best class in leadership that I have attended. The qualities of compassion, seeing only the positive, constantly demanding perfection of oneself and those around you, being disciplined, never allowing oneself to become the work at the center, staying focused on the larger purpose and never allowing one’s ego come in the way of one’s existence – all this and more was there for us to see and learn from this great person.
And more than anything else, this was not a mere pretense that he was presenting to the audience. It was more than evident that this was the way he lived, and it was his natural and authentic self. For someone who has reached such a high stature to be so simple; for someone who has the world at his feet to be so humble is something that is unbelievable. But SPB is all this and more. He is a true humanist, a spiritual seeker and one who oozes divinity in his singing and in his very existence. We at SVYM were not just privileged to have someone like him support our work; I think he gave us the living inspiration of Swami Vivekananda’s message. And I consider myself truly fortunate that I was treated to not just a auditory feast on that day, but to be in the presence of a spiritual giant who made himself so ordinary by making everyone around him become extraordinary. Sir, we salute you and thank you for inspiring us to do more and for your message of never forgetting that we are mere instruments in the hands of God. Not just SVYM, but every Indian will miss your physical presence and will remember you forever through your songs. OM SHANTHI.